Dear Father, talking with several people, including a priest, I have the impression that the new procedures for marriage nullity cases may be too brief and may not sufficiently safeguard the permanence of Christian marriage. Is this concern well founded?
We should say at the outset that concern for the permanence of Christian marriage is very important.
After all, Christian spouses promise to be faithful to each other “until death do us part” or “all the days of my life”. This is a serious commitment and it is for the good of the spouses, the children and the whole of society.
We are all aware of the harm, indeed the havoc, that the breakup of marriage can cause.
The effects are seen very quickly in workplaces, in schools, on the roads – everywhere.
Not for nothing did Our Lord say, “What therefore God has joined together, let no man put asunder” (Mt 19:5-6). For this reason the Church has always done everything possible to support married couples and safeguard the marriage bond.
But the breakup of marriage is a reality, in great part caused by human weakness and the effects of original sin.
In Australia, for example, in 2013 there were 40 divorces granted for every 100 marriages celebrated.
Divorce is a reality which the Church has always confronted in a motherly, pastoral way.
She has shown pastoral concern for all those in broken marriages and has examined marriages that have broken up to see if there are possible grounds for judging that the marriage was null from the outset, thereby allowing the spouses to marry again.
Up until now this examination of a marriage could take a long time, even years, and would entail some financial cost to the spouses.
It involved an investigation of the facts of the marriage and a first judgment at the level of the diocesan or regional tribunal, followed by a second judgment by a higher appeals tribunal.
Only when both these tribunals agreed that the marriage was null from the outset were the spouses free to contract a second marriage in the Church.
The length of the process could lead some people to give up and simply marry outside the Church or not approach the tribunal in the first place. To shorten the process and, if possible, make it free of charge to the spouses, Pope Francis has now given the Church the new norms.
He has done so moved above all by his concern for the salvation of the souls of the many people who feel distant from the juridical
structures of the Church.
The new norms have been well received by canonists and others working in marriage tribunals.
The scrapping of the second judgment, leaving only the first judgment by the local tribunal, might appear to make it too easy to obtain a decree of nullity.
But it should be remembered that in most cases the second judgment simply confirms the first one, so that doing away with it does not change the outcome in most cases and it speeds up the process considerably.
In any case, with the new norms there is still the possibility of having the judgment of nullity reviewed by an appeals tribunal as there was in the past.
What is more, Pope Francis has retained the centuries-old practice of examining the validity of marriage by a judicial process, not a merely administrative one, in which the bishop or his vicar could declare a marriage null without a full investigation and judgment.
And he has certainly not accepted the proposal of some to have a mere “pastoral process” in which the spouses would simply tell their story to a priest, who would come to a decision about their suitability to receive the sacraments.
It should also be remembered, as I wrote in this column last week, that the “shorter process”, which might take only a few months, can be used only when there are
obvious grounds for nullity that do not require a more thorough investigation.
In many cases, perhaps most, the ordinary process will still be followed, leading to a judgment by the tribunal.
But this judgment will now be final and does not need to be appealed, thereby speeding up the process.
All in all, the new norms do safeguard the marriage bond provided that those who work on the case do so with diligence and respect for the permanence of marriage.